Peter Brotzmann is a stalwart of improvised music. As I approached Cafe Oto on a cool September evening, Peter was sat outside, smoking a cigar, looking over at the queue of around 150 people which had formed , as it snaked along the road and around the corner. As I passed him, he said, 'Aaaaah...I had wondered if I would see you on one of these evenings.' So I stopped for a brief chat. A busy man, I am always amazed that Peter remembers who I am, let alone the books I write and articles, but he does . On occasion, he has sent me things from Wuppertal in Germany where he has his home - a book, a vinyl and he has written with me so I guess it should be no surprise but he is, as I said, a busy man. This was the final night of Peter's 4 day residency at Oto. He had brought musicians from across the globe to play with him including Han Bennink, Heather Leigh, Alexander Von Slippenbach, Camille Emaille and others. This night the players would be Matana Roberts on alto sax, Takeo Moriyama on drums, Masahiko Sato on piano, John Edwards on double bass and Brotzmann on clarinet and tenor sax for the first set, with Pat Thomas taking over the piano for the second set. The audience proved restless during the hour and a quarter wait between the doors opening and the first set beginning, especially as over half of them were standing. However, the first set opened and any discomfort was forgotten. Brotz's energy is catching and the other musicians followed him with extraordinary expertise, as well as setting out their own patterns for the others to follow. The ensemble flowed between full ensemble, trios, duets and solos with alacrity and the unspoken timing which only comes from experience and an understanding of improvisation, communication and music as a whole. The audience was engrossed from the start and the whooping and applause when the first part of the set ended was deafening.
The second half of the first set opened with a wall of sound from the ensemble, which just kept crescendoing. The moment you felt another layer was not possible, one was added. Peter on clarinet was verging on anarchic with his energetic embraces of the ever so slightly mis-timed changes, with the others having to listen intently to follow. Outstanding play from Matana Roberts on alto brought the audience delight and also, I felt, an understanding why exceptional musicians play with exceptional musicians at times because it gives them the freedom to be completely and unapologetically creative. Matana's alto inspired Peter's clarinet and they also created space and opportunities for John Edwards - always visually engaging - to create intense and provocative solo entries which engaged and embraced the switches the others introduced, binding them all with the range his instrument allowed. Takeo Moriyama is a powerful drummer - his unusual stance, head to the right, at the drums offering a visual draw which is impossible to resist. His gentle and personable demeanour off stage belies his strength and sheer physicality at the drum set. Masahiko Sato on piano was a revelation. His combination of bonkers improvised playing with his tender, emotionally loaded themed solos proved fascinating. After a break the ensemble gathered again on stage, the only difference being Pat Thomas was now on piano. When I last saw Pat he was bashing the piano with an I-pad so I was not sure what to expect but throughout the set, he was relatively gentle on the instrument. The second set was shorter, Peter now returning to tenor sax and for 25 minutes or so the ensemble worked their magic with improvised sections giving way to almost themed pieces before they dissolved again into improvisation. The interaction of the 6 musicians was nigh on perfect, the only slightly odd part was when Peter rolled into altissimo and so competed directly with the alto for a short time but no-one noticed and who cared anyhow. Matana Roberts was having none of it and gave way for just a short period before introducing her own alto counter attack on the tenor lines. None of it was competitive, it was just a different way to play. Each musician could be seen listening intensely to the others at times before re-joining to create the sound pictures. This was a lesson in great improvisation and an inspiration to everyone. I have to admit, as we waited in the queue I was getting cross with a group of men just behind me who had decided to buy tickets ' just to see what jazz was like' and were coming out with some pretty stupid comments. By the first set, however, they were fully engaged and grinning as they were overpowered by this music. Improvised music like this is about sharing and each player gives of their personality I took someone along who had never seen improvised music and they enjoyed themselves immensely. The guy who had bought himself and his mates a ticket just to see what jazz was like was now the hero of the hour. Peter, before the gig, told me he was hoping it would go well, that each day was different and he went up, he came down. For me at least, this gig was a definite up and it went really well.